One. Glancing around the circle of chairs with my guard up, I scanned the room in an attempt to feel the vibe I had volunteered myself to encounter. My pretension stems from a secret Wilderson shared with my comrades and I one night at a panel. He said, “my hopes in teaching you is that you are left with nothing else to do but become an academic.” The force of that statement didn’t really hit me until I moved to Chicago and waded around in the unemployment field realizing I was qualified to do nothing except continue on with school. And though I’m not completely unemployed, working in retail, no matter how comfortable, cushy, and easy the job is, requires an extraordinary amount of mental gymnastics toward not saying ‘fuck it all’ and really occupying Chicago—and my occupation includes fire and such, no tents and drum circles. And perhaps the real weight of the statement didn’t set in until now, because it wasn’t until recent that I realized Wilderson really meant it, despite his hearty laugh and loveable smile, and a further realization that his statement of possible profession(s) did not include activist (at least not in the traditional sense of the term).
So there I found myself one Saturday morning sitting in a circle of chairs anxious to hear about the prison abolition efforts of the new city and state I just moved in to. A student activist and community organizer suddenly finding himself no longer a student and in a new place, with no sense of what/where the community is, is a peculiar position to be in. And despite the fair warning from Wilderson, working part-time at major retail shop (a site of capital leisure/hyper-exploitation) and drinking tea while writing on a Monday afternoon, in a posh Boystown coffee-house, is not quite far enough in the opposite direction of what I was trained to do/become. I needed to seek out some political organizing spaces.
On that Saturday morning, I’m not sure when the guard went up, whether it was before I entered the room, or rather upon walking into a space reserved for a ‘prison-industrial complex teach-in’ and finding the majority to be white folks, a handful of non-Black people of color, and a sprinkling of Blacks. Which is not to insinuate only Black people can organize prison abolition efforts, but rather, the scars of experience and active research create a certain shield and barometer for the anti-blackness articulated via the commonsense structuring leftist organizing. My guard goes up in effort of contextualizing certain rhetorical moves that fetishize Black bodies and struggle (adorning a certain ‘post-modern Blackface’ which effectively validates Left/liberal political struggle), or a disregard of Black bodies and struggle (as a way of climbing toward citizenry/whiteness while pushing away from Blackness; misrepresenting Black struggle as complete or irrelevant; or assigning a symbolic citizenship on Blackness, which in fact lacks any real measure of assimilation, incorporation, or the privileges presumed). I continue to survey the room in hopes of gaging what was going to happen over the next three hours.
Two. The literature offered prior to the commencement of the workshop was effective in reminding me, though I may be looking for a radical prison abolition effort, it most likely won’t be found this Saturday morning (and perhaps I will need to reckon the fact, I probably won’t find one sitting here meditating, writing, and dreaming, on a Monday in a posh Boystown coffee house, as a way to unwind from my tedious day of selling middle-classed people, mostly white, their middle-class priced clothing). “TAKE ACTION TO END YOUTH INCARCERATION IN ILLINOIS,” reads the front page of the packet I picked up off the flyer and refreshment table. At the top of the page a small black and white image accompanies the heading: a fist, with the words ‘SHUT IT DOWN!” conjuring romantic past and alluding to ongoing struggle. However, glancing through the packet, which was solely focused on youth incarceration, I noticed the absence of any mention of race and class. With stats like, “In 2010, there were 32,030 juvenile arrest in Cook County alone,” I wasn’t left to wonder whether or not Black bodies accounted for the majority (overwhelming majority) of those arrest, Instead, I was contemplating, what was the exact percentage, and from what areas of town were these arrest made (not a huge mystery though, naturally I assumed the South and West side of Chicago)? Further I was curious as to the socioeconomic breakdown of these arrest, were middle-classed Black children being arrested near the same rate as their lower-classed racial peers; or at higher rates among their non-Black middle-classed peers? I assumed a definitive yes to the latter stat, while the former I knew would be much more complicated and in need of geographical analysis, but a soft ‘yes’ floats in my mind.
Analyzing the literature or visuality of any campaign is a complicated task, at times proving beneficial, while at others proving to be slightly inaccurate in assessing the goals and logic of the movement. The glaring exclusion of race and class marked a pause for me on that Saturday morning, but could not be the reason I would get up and leave. Rather, questions arose: is it possible to discuss prison separate from blackness (or antiblackness)? Can we assemble a logic dealing with the prison state free from Black bodies, or spoken outside of the stench of Black history, present, and future? In other words, is a statistic like, “In 2010, there were 32,030 juvenile arrest in Cook County alone” not already always tied to Black bodies? What image arises when we think of the prison? What bodies do we see in shackles and cells? A statistic like “32,030” begs the question, who are the 32,030? Which circles back to my initial questioning of the facts and figures offered, which maybe, was on the mind of the organizers of the teach-in; but perhaps strategy won’t allow them to speak the essential antiblackness undergirding the prison state, in effort of universal appeal?
As I glanced around the room of mostly white, a handful of non-Black people of color, and a sprinkle of Blacks, I commended the organizers for filling a room geared toward: prison education and “shut[ting] it down.” And because prison is spoken, why further Blacken it, at risk of turning people away? All the above questions I had no concrete answers for, but it kept me in my chair in hopes of gaining a few from the direction of the workshop. At what point would the truth of race, or more directly the fact of Blackness, make its appearance in our conversation?
Three. My experience in organizing and educating around prisons comes primarily from being a student in the project of African-American Studies and secondarily as a student activist and community organizer. In my work, race always led any discussion of the prison-industrial complex because it was definitively the strongest social determinant in assessing an individual’s relationship with the prison system or more broadly the police state. In addition, between the years 2009-2011, the Black Student Union at UC Irvine and a collective of Black student activist from across the state made extraordinary attempts at linking systemic low representation of Black students and faculty in the University of California system, with the systematic hyper-representation of Black mothers, fathers, sons, and daughters in the legal systems of California. On the campus of UC Irvine specifically, repeated efforts were made in exposing the campus’ implication in the prison-industrial complex during a period that offered a slue of events that bared latent anti-Blackness embedded within the student population, administrative affairs, and student services. Any effort or campaign made to recruit and retain Black students on the campus; certain factions within the Black Student Union (myself included) forcefully advocated the pairing of abolishing the prison system with those efforts. At the height of protest against fee hikes and privatization of public education, we understood the problem of making the university exclusionary meant the further inclusionary practice of the prison system, particularly for poor Black bodies.
The work engaged was largely psychological warfare. How do we get activist, students, faculty, and organizations to (re)think the problem of privatization of the University as not the essential problem, but rather an effect of anti-Blackness, structuring the institution? And though I talk romantically about my past work, I am in no way implying my comrades and I succeeded (for whatever success would mean in that type of political organizing). Rather, it is the scars, memories, and experience that comes on top of the research through Michel Foucault, Angela Davis, Loic Wacquant, Julia Sudbury, and others, paired with my own personal relationship with the prison state. All of this informs my own activism, as well as the way I process the spaces I volunteer myself into.
I sat glancing around the room, reading the literature, and watching as a Black woman, who seemed to be in charge, instruct her colleagues in posting more color-blind facts and figures concerning incarceration on the room’s wall. Within the packet I was reading, outside of the absence of race and class, I noticed a conflicted stance concerning the work being done against the juvenile justice system. While the image on the front page read “SHUT IT DOWN,” the theme of the packet resorted to ways of reforming the system, “this approach will streamline, strengthen, and simplify, the state’s juvenile justice system. And most importantly, it will protect the rights of youth and ensure that youth—and the state—can share a strong future” (emphasis added). I don’t want to naively suggest that organizing around prisons must strictly adhere to abolition or nothing mentality. Rather, Julia Sudbury has done terrific theoretical work in attempting to understand the mental position of prison abolitionist in meeting the immediate needs and concerns of bodies existing within the prison system. The conflicted statements within the literature in front of me (‘reform and strong futures’ versus ‘end youth incarceration’) raised further questions I hoped would be hashed out during the teach-in. What is the role of reform in a prison abolition campaign/movement? Julia Sudbury coins the term “non-reformist reform” in her article, “Maroon Abolitionist: Black Gender-oppressed Activist in the Anti-Prison Movement in the U.S. and Canada.” Along with Sudbury, I question, what are the abilities of anti-prison activist to keep a maroon mentality (a survival imperative and avoidance in implying that society is free outside the prison)? How do we meet the immediate needs of prisoners (reform) while paying critical attention to the ways the penal system will co-opt reforms in effort of consolidating and expanding the prison state? From gaging the reform tone in the literature, I worried, was this workshop going to demand change that challenged the logic of incarceration?
Four. The introduction was strange. After the somewhat liberal/left ritualistic ‘community agreement’ setting of space (one diva one mic, step up-step back, challenge the argument not the person, etc), which usually re-states generally accepted social behavior for group dynamics, while also protecting opinion and conjecture based on feeling and individualized experience against questions of institution, history, or structure, we were forced to introduce ourselves. We were told to state our name, preferred gender pronoun, and a favorite characteristic about ourselves. I watched as a little over half the room looked confused as to what “preferred gender pronoun” meant, and I also wondered what bodies are expected to be the test subjects for this queer experiment in inclusionary sensibility? I understand the political, social, and spiritual significance of not being labeled by unwanted gender inscription, but when do our radical strivings become forced outings? How do these exercises invite rhetorical violence, strengthening the possibility of physical violence? In a room of overwhelmingly cis-sexed individuals, no one identified outside of their presumed gender identification. What thoughts would have raced through the room if someone did? Would good standing or privilege to make future statements been relinquished in the moment of individual transgression? Did anyone fear that transgression, and simply conform to save face?
After the introductions, we had a kind of libation style space-setting activity. We were asked to call out the names of people we know in the prison system. I tensed up, because I actually don’t know of any family members or friends in a cell. Despite being Black, my family’s socioeconomic status and the suburban side of San Diego where I grew up, isolated me in a sense from direct prison contact. Even with that said though, it would be in bad faith for me not to mention, the somewhat bourgeois mentality of my immediate family members in “sheltering” me during my childhood. The activist side of me tensed-up in a peculiar search for authenticity, the prison-industrial complex weighed heavily on me and I wondered if it would be appropriate to whisper the names of two close family friends I called Aunt and Uncle that worked as prison-guards? Was the group I entered solely thinking in terms of the bodies that occupied the shackles and cells, or were we thinking through the rather labyrinthine social map of the prison state? And then I found my activist/academic footing; if this is a political workshop, what is my and my new peers relationship to political prisoners? Can we productively meditate upon political violence and political prisoners in a space geared toward the abolishing the institution meant to contain political dissent? Or was the libation style call and response, saturated with questions of guilt and innocence? Were my peers calling names of those loved ones presumed innocent and falsely detained, or were we conjuring the ethicality of prisons in general? My activist side shook in fear, and Mumia’s name came to my tongue, but I couldn’t find the courage to speak it. I looked around the room, and wondered what people would think if I attached myself (a new face to the Chicago scene) to the political imprisonment of a revolutionary soldier. Would they know I’ve been keeping up with his trials, and have read his writings? Would someone accuse me of not knowing him personally? Would it be an act of radicalization to insert political violence, revolutionary warfare, and political imprisonment into our intimate relationship with the prison-industrial complex? My prison-guard aunt and uncle weighed on my mind as well, but I whispered Mumia. Only those sitting in my immediate area could hear me. I’m not sure why it came out as a whisper, but it did. And not soon after, an older Black gentleman from across the room proudly shouted Mutulu Shakur. And I was intrigued.
Five. After the libation of names, we were asked to call-out, yet again, those people or communities affected by prions. The list was expansive and was effective in proving the prison-industrial complex is truly a complex: children, African and Latino communities, corporations, queer youth, elected officials, young women, grandparents, unions, small towns, and immigrants, were all among the list the group generated. Someone wrote on a poster board as we called out the communities/people affected by the prison state. And no discussion took place as to explanations of why certain people or communities were added to our list. As I watched the list being generated, I could only think, what are the variances in the relationships to the prison system? The unifier “young women” certainly does not account for the discrepancy between young Black women and everyone else. Nor does “queer youth” recognize the differing position of trans youth from others under the queer banner. I was not surprised “children” were the first community called out given the literature offered to start the meeting. Further, the subsequent following of “African and Latino communities” (coincidentally called out by the gentleman who called on Mutulu), was indicative of general consensus in the room to humanize the prison abolition movement and erase questions of history and structural position. Which is not the fault of the participants, but rather the logic structuring the way we think of incarceration.
Commonsense liberal/leftist opinion: ‘Youth prisons are bad, and the juvenile system is broken,’ however, when we talk solely ‘Black boys and girls’ (who make up the majority of the juvenile justice system) questions of behavior tend to arise. Which gets at the tendency to link “African and Latino” (or the more popular phrase “black and brown”) when talking about prison stats. A question of “who is affected by prisons?” garners a complicated response of a diverse population, as it should, however somewhere along the thought process (or perhaps we never start at the correct vantage point) we move further and further away from an analysis of the essential conflict: the prison is an antiblack institution, meant for the warehousing of Black bodies. Later in the workshop when we learn: the rate of incarceration for Black men is 32%, nearly double that of Latino men at 17%, and more than five times higher than that of white men at 6%, I wonder how the fact of blackness eases on the minds of my peers in the circle of chairs?
We broke into small groups and were asked to talk about our individual work with the anti-prison movement. I sat with two white high-school seniors, one boy and one girl. The boy told us about his mother who works with juvenile offenders. He had met one of his mom’s clients, Reggie, who had recently gotten out of juvenile correctional facility (the white boy looked at me and calmly said, “and Reggie is Black,” then opened the conversation up again for the girl on the other side of me). Reggie’s story was “inspiring” for the white boy, “though Reggie messed up, he recognized his bad deeds and made a promise to do better, and he and I talked about how prison was not the right environment for him to learn those lessons.” I then told about my organizing experience on the campus of UC Irvine, and political education workshops geared toward the prison-industrial complex. The girl on the other side of me talked about her work with the Juan Rivera Project. She talked extensively about the number of “innocent” people residing in prisons, and how the Juan Rivera story was one of “hope.” Despite the ideological conflicts I was having with both students in my group, I was secretly excited to hear such young, white people talking about prisons and despite their inabilities to connect structurally with the institution, they had some sense of the injustice. Perhaps more of a sense than I did at their age.
Six. In the end, I was excited/jealous to learn, like the two individuals from my group, a substantial percentage of the teach-in’s participants were from Francis Parker, a private school in Chicago’s Lincoln Park area. They were a mix of juniors and seniors taking an American history course and had just read Michelle Alexander’s The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness. And here they were, on a Saturday morning, offering detailed and spot-on facts about convict-lease, sharecropping, ghettoization, and redlining. The most interesting book I was assigned to read in high-school was Toni Morrison’s Beloved and that was just awkward, as I was one of two Black people in my AP English course, and somehow myself and Antoinette were catapulted into experts, despite being ignored largely during Heart of Darkness, Wuthering Heights, Canterbury Tales, and whatever else we read that year. And yet ignored again during Beloved when our peers learned there was a movie.
We made a timeline in the front of the room, from 1492-present, (naturally I took issue with that starting date, but its neither here nor there, I remained silent). We tracked major events that fueled the surge in the prison system. This is where the high-school students really shined. In the end, the Black woman leading the teach-in pointed out the fact that “no matter what has happened on this timeline, Black people have been the only consistent target of the state for policing and prison, even despite the post 9/11 immigration tactics and Islamaphobia.” If she had posted it on tumblr, I would have reblogged it. The room nodded its collective head and went slightly silent. Then, breaking the silence, a white woman announced, “and I just like to point out the flipside of that. White people have been the consistent benefiters of the prison system.” And while I have no problem in and of itself with that statement, we took a break after, and it is those subtle moments where we escape the problem of anti-blackness. Our attention shifts to the white/non-white divide; privileging the complicated matrix affected by the prison system, over the fact of (anti)blackness, the problem of the prison, and perhaps the problem of most anti-prison work.
 This question is rhetorical in this setting. It is a question that I have come up numerous times in political organizing and education, and one to be further worked out in a different space. Each campaign, organization, or space, has its own goals and strategies. This question is one that should be thought through thoroughly in each instance. When do things become too Black? Which is not to say, things aren’t always already Black, but rather, what rhetorical tricks do Black activist have up their sleeve in not turning people away. Though, I’ve found, if people are turned off/uncomfortable, something right is usually happening.